NYT Editorial Page Gets It Right On Sex Offenders

The New York Times this morning ran an editorial “Sex Offenders In Exile” that is about the most sensible thing they’ve written on the topic. In it, they rightly point out that driving sex offenders underground by overly restrictive policies about where they can live is a dangerous and misguided tactic.

They also rightly point out that such policies — which have effectively made some entire cities and towns off limits to sex offenders — are often made because we are justifiably afraid. That our fear is justifiable does not mean that it is a good driving force for policy-making. Fear leads to irrational decisions.

(Note: This is not the first time I’ve written about sex offender policies. See here and here for other posts on the topic.)

Sociologists are big on discussions of unintended consequences. Policies like those that bar sex offenders from living within 1000 or in some cases 2000 feet from a school, playground, place of worship, etc., are rife with unintended consequences, as the editorial points out. For one thing, they often push sex offenders into margins where they are harder to monitor. They also make it harder for offenders to hold jobs and become integrated into the kinds of social networks that would actually support their rehabilitation. Remember not all sex offenders are hard-core recidivists. But even those who are less likely to re-offend become more likely to do so if they’re only friends and neighbors are also other offenders.

Another unintended consequence of these policies is that they lull us into a false sense of safety. For one thing, the majority of sex offenses against children are committed by people known to the child, not by strangers. For another thing, simply making a likely re-offender live farther away from children does not keep them from traveling into circles where children will play. And there is a class-injustice here as well: poorer families are more likely to live in the places where sex offenders are allowed to live, making their children more likely than wealthier children to be the targets of registered sex offenders.

I am easily frustrated when I see irrational decisions being made. I am prone to outbursts like “Why don’t people think rationally about X,” whatever X might be. This editorial points out that people don’t make decisions based on how they think. They make decisions based on how they feel. And this is a very important insight.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Judith Levine, a writer whose work on sexuality and the perils of “protecting” children in ways that do them more harm has been very influential in my own thinking about sex policies. Judith reminded me that the important work that we who write about sexuality or politics or any sensitive issue need to take up is not to change how people think, but rather to change how they feel.

It is hard to imagine how to change people’s feelings about sex criminals or about children. We have made children into frail and sacred objects and have projected onto them so many of our fears about so many things.

How do we make ourselves less afraid? How do we make ourselves care enough about safety and justice to get it right? How do we get ourselves to be outraged at the effects of our fear-based decisions?

Consider the impact of these policies on the life of Genarlow Wilson, who, three years ago when he was 17 had consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a party. He was convicted of molesting her and sentenced to 11 years in prison. She never filed a complaint about the sex. Even prosecutors in the case wish that the outcome had been different. They had originally been bringing a rape charge against a group of boys, including Genarlow, and Genarlow was found to be not guilty of that charge, but videotape evidence presented in that case showed him having oral sex with the 15-year-old-girl. In explaining why he would not accept a plea deal offered to him, which would have cut his prison time, he said:

“Even after serving time in prison, I would have to register as a sex offender wherever I lived and if I applied for a job for the rest of my life, all for participating in a consensual sex act with a girl just two years younger than me,” he told a reporter for Atlanta magazine last year, adding that he would not even be able to move back in with his mother because he has an 8-year-old sister. ”It’s a lifelong sentence in itself. I am not a child molester.”

Nobody intended for an outcome like this to occur. Nobody intended for a bright, successful, promising young man’s life to be ruined because he was sexually active and had consensual sex with a girl just a few years younger than himself.

But that is what has happened, and it has happened because of policies made in fear. I will refrain from my ordinary appeal to reason. I take Judith Levine’s point. People act based on their emotions. So instead I will appeal to compassion. How do we generate compassion such that it puts our fears in their proper perspective? And how can we moderate our fear so that it matches our actual level of risk?

One way is by reducing our exposure to fear-inducing media and increasing our exposure to more sensible opinions. I’ve written before about the damage done by such popular programs as Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.” Certainly programs like that one do much to make us afraid and little to make us truly safer.

But we should also be talking to each other more honesty about how we really do feel and what we really do think. It is incredibly difficult to speak up against injustice or irrationality when sex offenders are the target of the injustice or the irrational policy. But it is important to do it. It is important not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is one of the few things that can change our feelings, lead us to make better policy, and really make us safer.


Filed under Education, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sex crimes, sex offenders, sexuality and age

9 responses to “NYT Editorial Page Gets It Right On Sex Offenders

  1. This is such a well thought out, well written article. You have elequently made you point.
    The only thing I have to add is this:
    People should not worry about the registered sex offenders that live in thier neighborhood (they know who they are), they should be more concerned with all of the sex offenders who live in their neighborhood who have never be caught and that they do not know about!

  2. What does “a few years younger” mean? 17 to 15? 18 to 12? I mean, if a 50-year-old man makes sex with a 20-year-old woman, that’s not any bad. And she’s 30 years younger! But if a 18-old-man makes sex with a 8-year-old girl, that’s only a 10 years difference. But it sure is pedophilia. Even if it’s a 12-year-old girl, is she mature enough to be clearly “consensual”?

    We can, to protect “consensual sex in public”-makers, loosen the law, and not punish children molesters. And we can, to protect children, arrest some people that have consensual sex with “too young” girls. I go all the way with the latter. I think I do not need to tell you the consequences of child rape. And you can convince a child that she’s not being raped, so it’s makes that sex “consensual”.

  3. Alex

    Luís, how do you decide when a person is mature enough to give meaningful consent?
    Deciding someones ability to give meaningful consent based entirely on physical age is silly. I have met someone who was, and still is, happy to be/have been sexually active when she was 14, were as I wasn’t mature enough till about 17 or 18. The local age of consent is 16.
    Drawing a line on any behaviour based entirely on age is useless, whether it is driving, drinking, or sex. People mature and learn at different rates. I sadly can’t suggest a better system, but hopefully one is possible.

  4. Judy Catch22

    Elizabeth, your columns are provocative and fascinating. I do disagree, however, with your comments about television coverage on “sexual predators”. I think the programs did provide a wake-up call to parents and young website users as to the dangers of on-line surfing and inviting someone to your house for a sexual visit. Certainly parents should alert young teens, whether they agree with experimentation or are opposed to sexual activity for their teen, that such encounters can be extrmely dangerous and that “trolling” on the net is not a prudent way to initiate a safe sexual encounter. The program also clearly demonstrated that many sexual predators do not fit your profile of the unjustly emprisoned young man who engaged in consentual oral sex. It also clearly demonstated in my mind that for many prison and/or other punishment do not stop many predators. So pen them up in geographic zones — no, not an answer. Keep parents alert through media coverage, perhaps not a bad one.

  5. My problem with shows like Dateline’s is not that they exist, but that through repetition they create a kind of panic that misdirects our attention. A single episode would have “alerted” parents to talk to their kids about safety on the Internet. Four such shows, and more to come, creates a sense that the primary threat to children comes from strangers on the Internet when the biggest danger to kids is from people they already know and trust. In that sense, these shows do an injustice to parents and kids.

    In addition, these programs distort our perception of the problem, such that we have difficulty talking rationally about it. Questioning of the Dateline/Perverted Justice approach is likely to result in the questioner’s wrongly being labeled a defender of pedophiles. Our discourse around the issue becomes narrower and less useful.

    I’d feel differently if Dateline had run a single episode, demonstrating to parents that they need to be proactive in teaching their kids Internet safety. But as I see it, Dateline and Perverted-Justice are contributing more to a culture of fear than they are to culture of safety.

  6. I think that the show was valuable as you stated, plus they were able to remove/identify sexual predators.
    Showing show after show, not only creates a distraction, it also dilutes the effect of the show over time.
    You are correct, it is very important to remember that most sexual abuse happens very close to home, family members, close friends, etc.

  7. shelley

    I am living a nightmare and I don’t even know how to get out of it. My nightmare? Being the girlfriend of a registered sex offender. The mania of sex offender legislation is getting crazier by the day and yet I stick with him. Why? Because he was falsely accused 21 years ago of a sexual assault. For those of you who still believe in the justice part of the criminal justice system, here’s how it happens: a person commits a crime (in my boyfriend’s case, breaking and entering to collect on a drug debt). So, yes, he’s guilty of THAT crime, but NOT GUILTY of the false rape accusation made a week later by the woman. But then the prosecutors start stacking charges, some BS, others real, just to see how far they can go to get a conviction. 15 in all. They know they can’t make the 15 stick, but they want to stack the deck to see what will stick. And then it’s not hard to scare a minority defendant in Oklahoma who is without a private attorney and no family support. So add up the years attached to 15 charges and you are looking at 80 years – for a breaking and entering case. What the prosecutors did was scare him into a plea. They got their plea; he got 10 years in, 10 years out. He served a little more than 4 years and 10 years probation. Fast forward to 2007 – listed on Megan’s List for a crime he did not commit that he wouldn’t have falsely pled guilty to in 1986 if registries were in existence then. His name, picture, address (My Address!) and “offense” are listed on Megan’s List. Under California’s current interpretation of Jessica’s Law, we can live where we are now, but if we move, we will have to locate 2000 feet from schools and parks and any other restrictions cities and towns can dream up.

    As I stated before, I choose to stay with him because I love him and because I see a great injustice done to him and thousands of others like him – falsely accused by vindictive women or soon to be ex wives of some heinous sex crime.

    I have nightmares that some busybody bigot will see his name on Megan’s List, see that we live across the street from a school and get a neighborhood picket parade going. Totally against the law, but do you think the police will likely do anything? Probably not!

    The problem with the whole Jessica’s Law is society’s inability to deal with the fact that child molesters and pedophiles are usually the work of someone the child already knows – parent, stepparent, relative, family friend, priest, teacher, coach, babysitter, day care teacher, etc. But the thought that someone the child knows and trusts could be capable of something so heinous is difficult to contemplate and comprehend. So while the overwhelming statistics show that these are the people who are really molesting children, society chooses to bury its collective head in the sand and pretend that children are most at danger from strangers. It’s much easier to think that someone we don’t know raped a seven year old than the father of a friend. To imagine that people we know are the most dangerous makes us scared because then we’d have to scrutinize all our adult friends and worry about them. It’s easier to worry about the stranger, or even the dozen registered sex offenders in town.

    The other point that drives me up the wall is the outright lying by politicians, a part of the media and just everyday people that registered sex offenders have extremely high recidivism rates. On a blog today, I actually saw one law and order type lie that stats show that 95% of sex offenders re-offend in a year’s time. Of course, those agencies that keep track of such stats don’t show anywhere near that recidivism rate. But of course, some people won’t let facts get in the way when they’re trying to make a point.

  8. Ajarn

    all this points to a symptom of America since Watergate: Eliminate all risk in American living,- all of it. The land that was a tolerant nation, a compassionate, caring country of second chances (ref. Bobby Kennedy’s last speech) is no more.
    Now “America” means intolerance, revenge, an international bully to be sure, as well as a threat to its own citizens. The dichotomy of “protecting” children, then prosecuting them as adults at the whim of a judge or lawmaker (lobbied by special interests) is insulting to human justice.
    Additionally it is confusing where there are laws in each state as well for the whole country,- who pre-empts who? It appears that the American model is not one to follow by other nations still trying to achieve the pinnacle of human justice, and increasingly, as America shoots itself in both legs (its feet were shot off years ago), it becomes less and less of an influence elsewhere on this planet.

  9. Your point about the confusion we, as a society, seem to have regarding children is really important, Ajarn. It seems we have a kind of dualism in our thinking about them: They are either angels or monsters. Thanks for your comment. I hope you’ll stick around!